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Friday, October 21, 2011

A Businessman Learns the Lesson, schools aren't businesses

by Jamie Robert Vollmer

"If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn't be in business very long!" I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of in-service. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle 1980s when People Magazine chose our blueberry as the "Best Ice Cream in America."

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our emerging "knowledge society." Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly.

They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement! In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman's hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant - she was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran, high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload..

She began quietly, "We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream."

I smugly replied, "Best ice cream in America, Ma'am."

"How nice," she said. "Is it rich and smooth?"

"Sixteen percent butterfat," I crowed.

"Premium ingredients?" she inquired.

"Super-premium! Nothing but triple A." I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

"Mr. Vollmer," she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, "when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?"

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap. I was dead meat, but I wasn't going to lie. "I send them back."

"That's right!" she barked, "and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant.
We take them all: GT, ADHD, ADD, SLD, EI, MMR, OHI, TBI, DD, Autistic, junior rheumatoid
arthritis, English as their second language, etc.
We take them all! Everyone!

And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it's not a business. It's school!"

In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, "Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!"

And so began my long transformation. Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.

None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a postindustrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission and active support of the surrounding community.

For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.

Please forward THE BLUEBERRY STORY to teachers, parents, politicians and everyone interested in education.


  1. I think that your initial look on schools was correct. The teachers are wrong.In the analogy of a business to a school they should view the blueberries as the staff in the school, where their students would be their customers. Their reaction was due to their resistance to the idea that they are part of the problem.

  2. Anyone foolish enough to negate what the author of the article has written(i.e. the person who wrote the above comment), needs to spend a week, better yet, a month teaching, attending meetings, correcting homework and dealing with the parents of that school.... Then, I'd like to hear what they have to say:)

  3. Sure , because it is sooo awful to challenge traditional thinking. The person who left the comment above should maybe get a job in the business world for a week, better yet a month seeing how efficiently businesses runs compared to schools. I hope that you agree with me that the education system needs to change in one way or another...(by the way, I have spent time involving such matters)...

  4. "...seeing how efficiently businesses runs compared to schools."

    *deep breath*


  5. "Concerned Fellow"...I have spent time in the classroom--30 years and I own not one, but TWO businesses in a highly competitive industry. Running a business is a cakewalk compared to the classroom where you have insufficient funding, students from every walk of life who are not all the "best and brightest," but yet teachers are still held accountable for each student's success or failure. Perhaps you, "Concerned Fellow" should take a cut in pay, step into the classroom with 35+ kids (yes, my standard number every hour for six hours a day--no "prep" hour, by the way...those were cut with funding and no additional help, either), limited materials and then attempt to have them all be successful. By the way, let me toss in nine very low level special needs students in one of those hours--without the benefit of a special ed. teacher or aide. Now do that for a few years and then perhaps you can understand the difference between the educational system and the business world. Teachers have to work with what they're given, they don't get to send back the "bad parts" or the "damaged product." Before you "talk the talk," go into the classroom that I just described and had to make work and "walk the walk." Many would ask why on earth would someone even choose to teach--the simple answer is that we hope to make some small difference in a child's life. We just didn't anticipate being slammed from those who've never spent any length of time in a classroom. I've been in your business world--and it's a breeze compared to the classroom setting I experienced for 30 years.